Why we need to restore long-term unemployment benefits

A case for restoring long-term unemployment benefits.
A case for restoring long-term unemployment benefits.

Of all the challenges I face as the nation’s Labor Secretary, this is the one that keeps me up at night: long-term unemployment. In my travels, people have shared heartbreaking stories about being out of work for six months, one year, even longer.

There’s no single “face” of this crisis. Some have master’s degrees, others a tenth grade education. All their stories are different. One man told me that beating cancer was easier than his bout of unemployment. A young mother is afraid she’ll have to tell her sons they’ll lose their home. Another set her thermostat at 58 degrees — keeping her coat on in the house —to lower the heating bill this winter.

Help could be on the way if Congress finally embraces a long bipartisan tradition and takes action. The Senate just passed a bill to restore emergency benefits which expired more than three months ago. Now the House of Representatives needs to act.

Since the December 2013 deadline came and went, more than 2.3 million people, including 108,786 in Florida, have been stripped of unemployment benefits that help them keep the lights on and the rent paid.

Nearly 69 million of our friends and neighbors have received a hand-up from extended unemployment benefits since 2008. Last year alone, the program lifted about 2.5 million people out of poverty. These benefits also act as an economic stimulus: money that gets spent at local businesses, promoting local growth and local job creation.

Even as the economy continues to recover, we still see unacceptably high rates of long-term unemployment. Yet Congress, in an unprecedented act of neglect, pulled the plug. They had never done that before when long-term unemployment was even half as high.

Some have suggested that the unemployed are lazy and these benefits make them more so. That’s as offensive as it is wrong. An aggressive job search is a precondition for the receipt of unemployment benefits. And no one is living the good life on unemployment; it only replaces about half of a worker’s earnings. It is a lifesaver, not a lifestyle.

The people I’ve met are diligently applying for every and any position possible, but oftentimes the longer you’re out of a job, the harder it is to find one. These men and women want nothing more than the opportunity of work.

That’s what we want too. We need them back in the game, back on the job and contributing to the economy. And we have many programs in the local area to help them acquire new skills, access training opportunities and connect to available jobs.

With so many people we know facing so much uncertainty, depleting their savings and fearful that their dreams are slipping away, it is unconscionable that Congress has sat on its hands this long. To ease hardship and provide some relief in Florida and nationwide, the House of Representatives must get a bill to the President’s desk immediately. We don’t have a moment to waste, or a person to lose.

Thomas E. Perez is U.S Secretary of Labor.

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